Currently lying joint-second alongside Greece in Group 2 of the European qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, Latvia have been one of the surprise packages in the campaign. While remaining out of the spotlight, they have nonetheless been making life hard for main group rivals Switzerland and Greece. With similar discretion, their emblematic captain Vitalijs Astafjevs has been edging towards the prestigious milestone of becoming the most-capped European player in history.
Astafjevs, aged 38, won his 156th cap for Latvia on 9 September, a match in which he both scored and moved to within one cap of equalling the mark set by Estonia's Martin Reim in 2007. Astafjevs is now within a whisker of entering the record books of European football and, just like his team, he puts his success down to humility and efficiency. FIFA.com takes a closer look at this Latvian footballing hero.
Record within reach
"It's an honour but it is not the most important thing in my career. Vitalijs Astafjevs will have the chance to beat my record soon and I wish him luck in that," said Martin Reim last June on UEFA.com.
His prediction proved accurate, and the upcoming qualifiers against Greece on 10 October and Moldova four days later will provide the Latvian midfielder with the chance to break the record. Astafjevs, for his part, is making no secret of his ambitions: "My goal is to be at the top of the list, and I hope I get there because I have no plans to retire just yet."
In his 18-year professional career, the legendary Latvian No3 has played in four different leagues (Latvia, Austria, England and Russia), winning seven Latvian championships and four domestic cups along the way. This Riga native spent 11 years at Skonto Riga, but it was in his national team colours that he truly shone, scoring 16 goals and captaining his side to a surprise qualification for UEFA EURO 2004.
A technically gifted player, Astafjevs is just as comfortable in midfield as in front of goal. His commanding presence was clearly in evidence in Latvia’s last qualification match, as he spurred his team on to a 2-2 draw against group leaders Switzerland. He is seen as the ultimate professional by the people of Latvia and beyond, and commands more respect than ever from his team-mates.
Ambition burns on
A unique figure in Latvian sport, Astafjevs is known for his unfailing humility and dedication, and is still fondly remembered at English third-tier club Bristol Rovers and Rubin Kazan in Russia. "Mr. Astafjevs is seen as a true professional and, in the club’s opinion, a major asset," went the declaration on his English work permit application. Testimony to Astafjevs' remarkable consistency are the three Latvian Player of the Year awards he has won over a 12-year period (1995, 1996 and 2007).
His continued value was in evidence again this year with his move to Latvian club FK Ventspils, who had just won their third league title in a row. Knocked out of the UEFA Champions League by FC Zurich, Astafjevs and Co are now competing in the UEFA Europa League in a tough group containing Hertha Berlin, Heerenveen and Sporting Lisbon.
Although his career is drawing to a close, Vitalijs Astafjevs is still as ambitious as ever and has set himself a number of challenges before he finally hangs up his boots. This year's goals are qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, a good run in the Europa League and another Latvian championship. After that, he will have the world record for international caps in his sights, currently held by former Saudi Arabia goalkeeper Mohamed Al-Deayea, who has 181.
And while 181 caps is still a long way off, nothing seems beyond the evergreen Astafjevs, who would surely love to have one final record to his name.